My idea is that this grand geometrical composition can stand as a kind of proxy for the lost medieval Gaelic harp repertory, which would have been played on the Queen Mary harp in the great hall at Finlaggan in the 15th Century for the Lords of the Isles.
For a very long time I have been interested in the symbolism of the animals on the forepillar of the Queen Mary harp. In their book Tree of Strings – Crann nan Teud, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird discuss these animals, suggesting that they may have religious symbolism: “We have examined the possibility of the designs having some family or clan significance but they do not seem to have any apparent links”
I am preparing for Wednesday’s concert here in St Andrews. I am going to play a programme of “Ceòl Rígh Innse Gall”, my speculative re-imaginings of medieval West-Highland ceremonial music. This project is still very much a work-in-progress, and I am still thinking hard about how this music should work, and what sources of inspiration and musical material to raid.
This is the final set at the Ceòl Rígh Innse Gall concert in the museum at Armadale, Isle of Skye, last month: medieval Gaelic ‘bardic’ poetry, sung with accompaniment played on the replica of the medieval Scottish ‘Queen Mary’ harp.
Fíor mo mholadh ar Mhac Dhomnaill
Cur la gceanglaim cur gach comhlainn True my praising of MacDonald, hero I am tied to, hero of every fight
Croidhe leómhain láimh nár tugadh
Guaire Gaoidheal aoinfhear Uladh Lion’s heart, hand that did not reproach, Guaire of the Gael, sole champion of Ulster
Aoinfhear Uladh táth na bpobal
Rosg le rugadh cosg na cgogadh Champion of Ulster, welder of people, eye which caused the ceasing of warfare
Grian na nGaoidheal gnúis í Cholla
Fa bhruach Banna luath a longa Sun of the Gael, face of the sons of Coll, around the Bann his galleys were swift
Cuiléan confaidh choisgeas foghla
Croide connla bile Banbha Furious hound, stopping raiders, steadfast heart, tree of Ireland
Tír ‘na teannail deirg ‘na dheaghaidh
A bheart bunaidh teacht go Teamhair The land is a blazing beacon behind, his ancestral duty to go to Tara
Measgadh Midhe onchú Íle
Fréimh na féile tréan gach tíre The confuser of Meath, the wolf of Islay, the root of bounty, the defender of each land
Níor éar aoinfhear no dáimh doiligh
Craobh fhial oinigh ó fhiadh n-Oiligh Refusing no-one, no pleading poets, generous honourable branch from the land of Oileach
Níor fhás uime acht ríoghna is ríogha
Fuighle fíora fíor mo mholadh No-one raised with him but kings and queens. True these judgements; true my praising
Here’s the first photo I have seen so far from the Ceòl Rígh Innse Gall concert at the Museum of the Isles, Armadale, on the Isle of Skye a couple of weeks ago.
Left to right: Concert organiser Ian MacDonnell, harpist Simon Chadwick and singer Gillebrìde MacMillan in front of the reproduction of the medieval Iona grave slab of Aonghus Og, Lord of the Isles. Photo: Judith Parks
Following on from the interlace on the caskets I posted yesterday, here is a whalebone gaming piece found in a cave on the isle of Rum. The Museum suggests it is 15th or early 16th century.
Again the style of the interlace carving is reminiscent of the pillar carving on the Trinity and Queen Mary harps – the interlace in low relief over and under against a recessed ground, tightly knotted, with parallel incised stripes emphasising the turn of the ribbons. Compare especially this panel on the Trinity harp forepillar:
The gaming pieces is a bit wobbly in its execution, but then so too is the interlace on the Trinity harp. However the thing about the gaming piece that really got me is the weird asymmetry. I have rotated my photo to show it with the axis of symmetry vertical, however it does not have a horizontal symmetry. The pattern of the top half is quite elegant and interesting, but if mirrored in the bottom half it would not give a single endless line. Perhaps the artist saw this and made one fewer edge loops, so crossing over two of the ribbons. However this also has the effect of creating two closed circles in the lower half. We see similar closed circles on the Trinity pillar. Look at how the end circles on the trinity pillar do not close but loop back on each other. This is similar to how the two circles in the upper half of the gaming piece are not closed. I have to say that no matter how I turn and manipulate the gaming piece in my mind, it is not as elegant a composition as the panel on the Trinity harp pillar!
In the National Museum today I looked at the two whalebone caskets. They are about 15th century in date, from the West Highlands – similar caskets appear on the stone slabs such as the one from Keills, and it has been suggested that the caskets were used to store documents such as charters and land-grants.
I have a new sword, which I acquired secondhand. It was made in Czechoslovakia by Nielo – there seems to be a number of very good bladesmith craftsmen in Eastern Europe. It is nicely made and seems a quality piece of work. Though it is over 10 years since I last did any historical fencing this seems a very good sword.
I have been looking for a long time for a sword of this type. The drooping quillons with broad ends are the really distinctive thing here and these differentiate this “Scottish style”, and they are what develop to give the classic “claymore” or “twa-handit sword” of the 15th to 17th century.
The West Highland grave slabs, such as the ones at Keills, show similar swords but with viking style lobed pommels. Was there a real difference between the designs of the West and the East in the 14th and 15th century? Or were the late medieval West coast stone carvers deliberately showing an archaic design? I don’t think there are any extant examples of the lobed-pommel type whereas there are a number of this wheel-pommel type surviving. Here is an excellent example in Kelvingrove museum, Glasgow.
I could have done with this in 2011, when I ran my Battle of Harlaw music workshops. We spent part of one of the sessions looking at the effigy of Gilbert de Greenlaw, and discussing his arms and armour. He is carrying exactly this kind of sword – again in an East coast context. We also looked at some of the West highland effigies.
The sword does not have a scabbard, so making one is my next project. I need to look at more of the effigies and stone slabs to get a better idea of how they work.